By Malcolm Qualtrough 30 Jan 2018

Downie Street still runs between Flinders St and Flinders Lane in the Melbourne CBD. In the 1970s it was more open; but today it is crowded over by apartment buildings and passers-by hardly notice the sign that says Downie Street. Only a block down from Spencer Street, most people race by on their way to Southern Cross Station to catch a tram or train.

In 1971 I was 19 and began work with the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV). As a Trainee Engineering Assistant I had to complete three years training. My training consisted of either three or six months stints at various laboratories owned by the SECV around Melbourne. 

As I grew up in Country Victoria at Bendigo, moving to Melbourne was a big shock. Although I had relatives throughout Melbourne and we often visited, none of them were close to the City, and it was not the same. I had a feeling of doom and gloom for quite a while. 

Towards the end of my first year I was “sentenced to three months” at the Downie Street Relay Lab. Later on in my fourth year I got a “six month sentence”. This time flowed on to my fourth year when I was allocated to the Relay Lab permanently. Although I was only to spend another three months here my nine-month stint had a marked influence on my career in the Victorian Electricity Industry.

Downie Street Relay Lab can only be described as gloomy. It had no verandah its dark brown brick front rose two stories from the inside edge of the footpath. Its windows were encased in black painted iron bars. I think it was actually two buildings. The left hand building was the Relay Store with a big roller-door for deliveries and dispatch. This building also housed the toilets and mess room at the rear.

When you walked in the main door of the Lab you could have been fooled into thinking you were in some sort of school. The first thing in front of you was two rows of Test Benches with either one or two engineers or assistant engineers (we will call them “testers”) working. I think there were four or five rows of benches down each side facing the front of the building. At the rear along the windows was another workbench facing backwards. The workbenches had inbuilt transformers, terminals and power supplies – all you required to acceptance test or repair protection and control relays.

At the side of the benches was a high voltage enclosure (cage) mainly for testing resistors.

It was a gloomy place to work as talking was not encouraged. The testers faced the front and in the left hand office with his door wide open was a large desk. Seated behind his desk like a schoolmaster was the big round frame of the SECV Relay Engineer, one Bob Nimon. Bob was fearsome, only I think because he promoted this quiet working environment so that everyone was scared of him. A few years later I sat with him and his new wife (I think) at an SECV Ball in St Kilda. He was actually a normal guy in the end. 

Bob did hate the long hair of the 60s and 70s and would often call someone up to his office, and make an appointment for them with the SECV barber up at head office. The head office (Monash House) was a couple of blocks up Flinders Street, on William Street, and they provided a barber for the staff. Monash House is also where we went for lunch where in the first floor cafeteria you could get a roast dinner for a nominal charge. Tea-ladies with big pots of free tea and coffee paraded up and down the rows of table. Grey-haired staffed sat to one side playing chess.

Across the doorway from Bob’s office were two smaller offices. The first one belonged to the Relay Supervisor Charlie Evans. Charlie was a short hunched over man, who always had a smile on his face. His desk was covered with layer of dispatch dockets, work orders and other paperwork. Without hesitation he could retrieve the appropriate bit of paperwork from anywhere under this big mess. Charlie was everyone’s friend, the opposite of Bob Nimon. I seem to remember Charlie also bred greyhounds.

When you first arrived as a trainee at Downie Street, usually there were two or three new trainees revolving through, you sat in Charlie’s office. Here you were issued with tools to bend relay contacts and measure spring pressures. Charlie would then demonstrate on how to adjust relay contacts. Then they put you to work. To begin with you might be given a relay with 20 contacts from the store. You then had to make sure the contacts were all aligned (making together) and had the correct pressure. Next you powered up the relays and measured pick up and drop out values to standard figures.

The other small office next to Charlie belonged to Ian (I think) Probert, the clerk or admin person. Secretly I used to think of him as “Mr Bumble” (from Oliver Twist). Mr Bumble tried to instill fear in people. If your pen was empty you had to bring it back and show him before he would issue a new one. Mr Bumble also rang the bell for lunch and tea breaks. There was actually a warning bell he rang two minutes before so you could line up before leaving the building. Ian, I believe had a passion for his fire brigade out in the Dandenongs.

The staff at Downie Street were some of the weirdest people I have ever worked with. There was a definite pecking order. As well as trainee engineering assistants the SECV rotated engineers through Downie Street. The engineers were in the front rows and were given complicated Distance Relays to work on; something they never let us assistants do. Many of these people went on to become senior managers.

At the back of the room were the trainees. There were actually about three generations of trainees coming and going. Most of them did not take relay testing seriously and took advantage of the lack of quality control in the building. There were senior people allocated to check your work but a lot of thing slipped through the cracks.

Another job they gave me, as a first year trainee was to walk around the corner in to Spencer Street, to the milk bar and get a tray load of Egg and Bacon sandwiches for morning tea. This was the age of the “Dero” (Derillect - homeless), the unemployed with long grey beards and trench coats who lived on the streets, often on the doorstep of our building. Their empty bottles of wine and paper bags used to litter the street. They used to get in a group and accost us as we walked back with a tray of sandwiches. There language was half-drunken and unintelligible to me.

After three year training the testers were asked their preferences for permanent allocation. No one nominated Downie Street. It was not glorious work. I did choose Downie Street mainly for a thirst for knowledge on protection relays. I also sure this knowledge and experience putting me in good stead later on to move back to the country. This aim was later fulfilled.

Meanwhile and I admit to some naivety but this group seemed to me to be a group of misfits and sometimes ”weirdoes”. We became good friends. Socially we arranged a staff Squash Tournament, cold days at Albert Park Lake, and had one or two trips to the Savoy Hotel Strip Shows. The Savoy was just up the road on the corner of Bourke and Spencer Streets, and our wives used to pick us up at around 8pm to drive us home.

I think the place was unique because engineers and trainees all mixed and got on together. We even befriended the store men and the cleaner at a time when there was definite class discrimination in the SECV. Years later when the Relay Lab was relocated to Yarraville, the cleaner could not understand at all when he was not allowed up to the Staff Lunchroom and was kept apart from his friends.

Another story comes to mind of when Steve, the Greek cleaner washed the teacups out with Ajax one day to really get them clean. The cups stank of Ajax powder for days. Someone decided to get back at him and nailed his Gladstone bag to the rubbish bin one evening before he was due to go home.

There were many stories and fun times. There was the tester who fell asleep after a party in the city, missed his stop and ended up in the railway yards in Dandenong. He was a character; one hot day he with the lab full of staff were all working away quietly and half asleep. There was no air conditioning that I can remember.  I guess he could have been asleep as well, but he was testing an old Westinghouse overload relay and left on the supply too long. 

All of a sudden we watched in slow motion as like a small atomic bomb a mushroom cloud of smoke arose from his workbench and spread out over the ceiling.

Alas in March 1975 I had to front Bob Nimon in his office and confess I would be moving to a job in the Latrobe Valley. It surprised me to see him so upset at this. With lessons learnt, his legacy was to live on with some us.

© 2021 by Malcolm Qualtrough, Elizabeth Feisst and the late John Karran Qualtrough.
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